In an effort to address the surging demand for data professionals who are schooled in the use of big data, the University of California at Berkeley is launching a Master of Information and Data Science (MIDS) program online.

“This new degree program is in response to a dramatically growing need for well-trained big-data professionals who can organize, analyze and interpret the deluge of often messy and unorganized data available from the Web, sensor networks, mobile devices and elsewhere,” says AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information (I School), home to the new program.

The MIDS program is currently accepting applicants and will open its virtual doors to students this January. A maximum of 30 students will be admitted for 2014, according to Saxenian, who says the I School is intentionally limiting the initial class size in order to provide the sort of “high-touch, high-quality interactive program that replicates the quality of education that students get on campus.”

Citing a June 2011 McKinsey Institute report on big data, Saxenian says that by 2018 the U.S. may face a shortage of up to 1.7 million people with the analytical skills and know-how to make use of data for business, energy, health care, finance and other fields. That deficit is already being felt in the San Francisco Bay Area, she says, where technology firms and others connected with the labor market confirm that people with the high-level analytics skills they need are in short supply.

In response, the I School Master Degree courses will concentrate on building skills in the use of unstructured, heterogeneous data to solve business problems that most professional training courses aren’t structured to provide. These will include an understanding of data storage, databases, new data mining techniques, parallel processing and real-time data analysis.

Apart from the small class size, unusual for an online program, what makes this program distinctive, Saxenian says, is that it will train people in the entire data life cycle and not just data mining. Among the areas to be covered are the historical use of data to solve business problems, data presentation and visualization, avoiding biases and how to structure a research program. MIDS offers an applied degree, so the coursework will be practical, emphasizing field work and collaboration.

 “We are awash with data, but the expertise to analyze and exploit that data is in short supply. The mission of the MIDS degree is to provide that expertise,” Hal Varian, a professor emeritus at the I School and chief economist with Google, said in a statement.

Asked by Information Management what she thinks of the new INFORMS certification program, Saxenian says she’s very supportive of the idea of professional certification and intrigued by the program, but has only just begun to learn about it. MIDS, she says, will consider offering the certification as an option, pending further investigation.

Known as the Certified Analytics Professional or CAP program, it was launched earlier this year by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) to establish a consistent and widely recognized set of credentials for professional data analysts.

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